Belém

The leisure part of this trip was on either side of a weeklong conference for me. After the work portion wrapped up, we took a day to visit the Belém District, to visit Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, home of the original custard tarts, and check out the monuments along the waterfront. Oh, who am I kidding? It was really all about the custard tarts.

It was a beautiful sunny Thursday, with big fluffy clouds, and perfect cool temperatures. We walked down to Praça da Figueira, next to the Rossio station, to catch the #15 tram to Bélem. Catching a tram at this stop was a bit baffling. One would arrive, let everyone off, then shut the doors for a while. Eventually, the doors would open again to let people on.  One just drove away empty, but we were able to get on the one right behind it, standing room only. Traffic was heavy, and that made for a slow ride with lots of starts and stops. 

We eventually arrived at Bélem, and the tram let us off right outside the famous shop. This is the only place you can get the authentic pastéis de Belém, which were originally made at the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. In the early 19th century, when monasteries in Portugal were taken over by the government, these treats abruptly became unavailable. Clearly, this could not stand, and after a little while a nearby commercial baker managed to get a hold of the original recipe and began offering them at this pastry shop. The recipe remains tightly guarded to this day, and the story is that the pastry is made by one master chef, and the custard by another, separately from each other and from the rest of the staff, who turn out upwards of 20,000 of these tarts a day. 

Although there is often a line out the door and around the block, we got lucky, and were able to get a table after almost no wait. The seating space was a bit like the wardrobe that led to Narnia: the small, charming area around the counter connected to another small room with tables, that opened onto another, and so on, eventually ending in a large cafeteria-style space. We were seated at a small table with four chairs. Soon after, a group of German tourists sat down at the next table, and the fifth member of their party plunked himself down at our table without making eye contact with us or acknowledging us in any way.

Our waiter on the other hand was very happy, and why not? His job is to deliver small plates of joy to people all day long. We ordered bica (a coffee that similar to espresso, but smoother) for Dan, tea for me, and two pastéis de Belém. They are amazingly delicious when warm, with a very crisp crust. We immediately ordered another two. Meanwhile, our new companion sprawled out over the table with his food, and eventually started coughing. By this time, we decided it was time to go; he never did make any contact with us at all. 

Next up was the monastery. We had already visited the church on an organized afternoon excursion from the conference, so we focused on seeing the cloisters. These are built on two levels in a square plan, surrounding a pretty courtyard with a reflecting pool. Rows of arches define beautiful vaulted hallways, all carved of limestone. Every surface is elaborately carved, in the style that came to be known as Manueline. I particularly enjoyed the large variety of animal gargoyles on the upper level, some realistic and some fanciful. Also on the second level as a really well done and informative historical display that featured parallel timelines for the history of the monastery, of Portugal, and the world.

We rounded out our afternoon with a walk through the Jardim da Praça do Império across from the monastery, and then on to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of  Discoveries). We took the elevator to the top of the monument to take in the view over the waterfront, and then continued down along the river to the Belém Tower. After a break for a quick bite at the snack bar, we circled back to the main road to wait for a tram. When none came by after 20 minutes, we walked back to the bakery and got another round of pastéis de Belém, standing at the counter.  After this, we walked a little further back through Belem to take some photos, then caught a cab up to the Bairro Alto district for dinner.

And this was one of the standout meals of this trip: spectacular Moroccan food at A Flor da Laranja. The space is small, but beautifully decorated and very welcoming. We got to chatting with the owner since we were the only party there at first. She told us that our starter – ‘stuffed bread,’ a thin, crispy, dough filled with ground meat – was usually larger in Morocco, but she makes them the size of her hand so they can be a starter. Our meal came with four meze that for me outshined the main courses: eggplant, fava beans, sweet potato with raisins and cinnamon, and spinach with preserved lemon. We finished with sliced oranges, and absolutely *perfect* mint tea. It was lovely meal, and lovely to chat with the owner about the food as it came out, one of our favorite parts of eating in small places like this.